Do what's necessary: Tax the Hummers
THE United States is getting ready to fight a war with China over oil. It's called "preparedness," but it could also be a self-fulfilling prophecy if we don't get smart about our energy policy. To the environmental and economic reasons for conservation and alternatives to oil, add the thought you might have to die for it.
This is not a fuzzy, rad-lib notion. It's President Bush's basic geopolitical strategy, and it is being executed now. The president's State of the Union speech had many fine-sounding phrases regarding our country's addiction to oil, but as usual he usurped the language of intelligent policy while offering only an illusion of the policy itself. The goal of reducing our dependence on Middle East oil by 75 percent sounds splendid until it's pointed out that only one-fifth of our foreign oil imports come from that region. Bush's energy initiatives are a pittance compared with his ongoing military ones.
Consider China. The United States has 10 large military bases ringing that country or within striking distance of the oil and gas reserves and sea lanes on which China depends. These bases are located in Japan, South Korea, Guam, Diego Garcia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Kyrgyzstan. In addition, the 7th Fleet has dozens of warships and submarines off China's coast.
We are conducting joint military exercises with 11 of China's neighbors and selling advanced weaponry to eight countries ranging from Taiwan and Japan to Pakistan. Given this U.S. buildup, Chinese leaders must have been astonished by Donald Rumsfeld's comment at a recent conference: "Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder, why this growing investment in their military?" Imagine the outcry here if China had a fleet off the coast of California.
China's investment in its military is growing, of course, and growing rapidly. But it is dwarfed by the United States. China spends $75 billion a year on its military. (This is the Pentagon's estimate.) In 2004 the United States spent $500 billion. Take out what we're spending for our current adventure in Iraq, and you still have $300 billion to $400 billion. From our tax dollar, 42 cents goes for war, preparing for war and obligations from past wars. Bush's energy initiatives won't even amount to a penny.
Why are we spending so much on the prospect of war with China? The answer is oil. We need to protect our own sea lanes and foreign oil sources. According to the Department of Energy, Chinese oil consumption currently is 6 million barrels per day, second only to the United States. China's needs are projected to reach 12 million barrels a day by 2020. The United States is projected to need 16 billion.
Like the United States, China doesn't have enough oil of its own. By 2020 it will need to import three-quarters of what it burns, so it already has secured long-term contracts with suppliers like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia that formerly sold only to the United States and Europe. It is clear that we are in a long-term race with China to dominate the world's oil supplies. Our mutual military build-up is readily understandable in that context, as are many of America's seemingly self-defeating polices in the Middle East.
Bottom line, there's just not enough oil in the world. Not for us and 1.1 billion Chinese. (Not to mention India.) Experts differ on exactly where to peg the world's total reserves of oil, but there seems to be consensus that we can't drill our way out of this one, no matter how many wildlife preserves we perforate.
If you agree there's not enough oil, what do you think will happen? Will we and the Chinese be willing to just turn off the lights and shiver in the dark? Of course not. We'll do what great nations have always done to safeguard the basic survival of their peoples. We'll go to war. Finding some "idealistic" pretext for war is the easy part.
It doesn't have to happen. There are smarter ways to heat and air-condition our homes and to keep the lights on, but don't expect the "Good-Oil-Boy" administration of Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney to do it. Bush started his business career as a wildcatter (and went bust.) Cheney made his millions with Halliburton.
The fastest and cheapest way to cut our addiction to foreign oil is through conservation, something Bush didn't even mention in his speech. Conservation, what the energy experts call "demand-side management," is scary for an oilman because it works. It last worked in the 1970s when there was significant government support for it. When OPEC and the oil companies saw that America really could cut its addiction to oil, they turned the spigot back on.
According to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism Web site, Hawaii depends on imported petroleum for 90 percent of our energy needs. We are more vulnerable than any other state to disruption of oil supplies, much less a war. In addition to the governor's admirable goals of alternative energy sources, we must institute real energy conservation incentives along with serious disincentives for oil and gas consumption. In other words, we need to tax the Hummers.
The Hummer automobile is one of the most egregious examples of how we waste energy, but there are many more in categories ranging from light bulbs to water heaters. Public education on conservation coupled with intelligent tax policy should be a priority for our Legislature. We can't afford to wait for the next presidential election to get smart about energy. Hawaii can start now.
Richard Tillotson is a writer who lives in Honolulu.